“What does nephelibate mean?”
Aina was reading Mario Vargas Llosa’s In Praise of the Stepmother, translated by Helen Lane. On page 95 of that festival of sensual words she found this: “And he remembered José María Eguren, the slender nephelibate poet who, regarding the Spanish word nariz as being phonetically vulgar, gallicized it and called it nez in his poems.”
I had to admit I didn’t know what nephelibate meant. In fact, I didn’t think I’d even ever seen or heard the word before.
As it happens, nephelibate isn’t on dictionary.com either, or m-w.com, or even in the Oxford English Dictionary. But I turned to the great cloud mind of Google and found a page in French that gave a definition. The word also exists in Spanish and Portuguese, spelling differing as appropriate. A bit of an infraction, don’t you think, for a translator to use word that’s a direct borrowing from another language and doesn’t have a dictionary entry in the language you’re translating into?
But of course this is English. That’s a thing we do.
But what did this word mean? Did it have to do with nephews, or kidneys (that root is nephr as in nephritis), or a nefarious Nefertiti, with some kind of philia, with celibate or libation, with phlebotomy or something flabby, infallible, or inflatable? Given the title of the book, could it be some converse to novercal (‘of or relating to a stepmother’)? It starts soft with the /n/ and becomes softer with the /f/ (puffed with a classical breath by the ph spelling) but then hardens with /b/ and comes to a point at /t/. It’s like a down pillow with a hard cube in the middle. Or a cloud that will send down ice.
The obliging web page I found that first gave me the definition in French was on the blog Le Lorgnon mélancolique, and here is a translation of what it says (you will find this same definition also in wiktionary in Portuguese for nefelibata): “Nephelibate: who lives in the clouds; said of an excessively idealistic person, who flees reality, also of a writer who doesn’t follow literary rules. From Greek nephelê (‘cloud’) and batein (‘walk’), the term seems to have been invented by Rabelais in the fourth book of Pantagruel.”
Ah, François Rabelais, the 16th-century French author who gave us gargantuan, agelast, and thelemite, among others. He used the word Nephelibate just to name a particular fictitious nation. But its roots made it handy and it persisted. A cloud-liver! Sky-walker! Someone whose head is in cloudcuckooland, who simply can’t be brought down to earth! A fantastic rule-breaking poet or prose writer! Perhaps someone who invents new words, or borrows words whole-cloth from other languages without so much as explaining them. Or, of course, someone who insists on using a French word because he does not like the word available in his own language.
The image that comes to me is of The Beatles’ fool on the hill: “Well on the way, head in a cloud, the man of a thousand voices talking perfectly loud, but nobody ever hears him or the sound he appears to make, and he never seems to notice, but the fool on the hill sees the sun going down, and the eyes in his head see the world spinning ’round.” Oddly, that also seems to describe life in a high-rise apartment such as the one I’m sitting in right now…